By Joshua Benton
In 1975, a national magazine wrote a cover story decrying the poor writing skills of American schoolchildren. The headline: “Why Johnny can’t write.”
Almost three decades later, Johnny’s still having trouble – but his sister’s doing just fine.
Girls far outscored boys on the writing portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, according to new data released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Education. It’s the largest gender gap of any major subject area tested by NAEP, the federal tests often called “the nation’s report card.”
The NAEP writing test is given every four years to fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders. It is considered perhaps the most respected of the nation’s major academic tests and allows comparisons between states.
Texas students fared well on the test. The state’s Anglo eighth-grade students had the third-highest NAEP score in the nation when compared with Anglo students in other states. Texas blacks finished fourth in the nation, and Texas Hispanics came in sixth.
Texas fourth-graders also did well: Anglos finished fourth, blacks 14th and Hispanics third.
“We’re seeing some good results, but we know we still have a lot of work left to do,” said Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe.
Considered as a whole, Texas was about average. The NAEP writing test is scored on a scale of zero to 300. Texas fourth-graders scored 154, one point above the national average.
Texas eighth-graders scored 152, right at the national average. That’s a two-point drop from the last time the test was given, in 1998. Officials did not release a state-by-state breakdown of 12th-grade scores because not enough students were tested to make comparisons valid.
But Texas is at a significant demographic disadvantage to high-scoring states such as Connecticut and Delaware. Nearly 60 percent of Texas eighth-graders said a language other than English was spoken at home – a situation that usually leads to lower English writing skills. Only California and New Mexico had higher rates.
In addition, 45 percent of Texas students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches – the fourth-highest percentage in the country.
Nationally, fourth- and eighth-grade scores were slightly higher than in 1998. Twelfth-grade scores were slightly lower.
Writing advocates said the increases were welcome but argued that writing still often gets short shrift in schools that focus more on reading and math skills – often because of the way state testing systems are structured.
For example, the federal No Child Left Behind law passed last year requires that states test students in reading and math. It has no such requirement for writing.
Texas’ new TAKS test assesses students in reading every year from grades three to nine, but in writing only twice, in grades four and seven. There are also two English language-arts exams that combine reading and writing into one test.
“There’s a lack of understanding in the role that writing plays in all learning,” said Mary Ann Smith, co-director of the federally funded National Writing Project. “That reading and math would be a priority without writing doesn’t make sense.”
There are signs that writing skills are getting more emphasis. In April, the National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges issued a report calling writing the “neglected R” among the traditional reading, writing and arithmetic. Former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey is leading a five-year national campaign to improve children’s writing.
Last year, officials behind both major college-entrance examinations, the SAT and the ACT, announced they would add a written essay to the tests in 2005.
“Everybody told us, whether it was college professors or English teachers, that the students who come to school today cannot write,” said Gaston Caperton, a former governor of West Virginia and president of the College Board, which produces the SAT.
“Writing is critical to their success. By putting writing on the SAT, it signals very loud and clear that it’s essential.”
It’s a message that boys may need to hear more than girls. At all three grade levels tested, girls finished on top by wide margins.
Forty percent of eighth-grade girls scored high enough on NAEP to be considered “proficient” under the test’s rules. Only 20 percent of boys did.
To put it another way: If all of America’s eighth-grade girls moved to their own state, it would have the fourth-highest writing scores in the country.
If all the boys moved to their own state, it would rank 37th of the 41 states that NAEP tested.
“It’s really a remarkable gap,” Ms. Ratcliffe said. “You see the same trend on other tests – girls just do better on writing.”
The diary theory
Theories abound for the gap. Some say girls are more likely to keep diaries or journals, which provide regular writing practice and help girls express themselves. Others say teachers often assign writing topics that don’t interest boys.
“You have to engage males in a way that is meaningful to them,” said Mary Stockton, a Lewisville school administrator and president of the Texas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts.
“You have to let them see that putting their interests into words is a worthwhile activity, that they’ll discover things about their interest and themselves that they can’t find any other way.”
It may simply come down to teachers spending more time working with boys on their writing. “Girls probably feel a greater ease in communicating verbally and with language,” said Tom Elieff, head of the upper school at the all-boys St. Mark’s School of Texas.
“With boys, that aspect of their educational development takes much longer.”